Reflecting on Digital History

digital-clioLast semester, I taught my first section of Digital History, following my participation in the 2016 NEH Doing Digital History Institute. The program, which is headed by Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan of George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, is designed for mid-career historians who come from institutions with little infrastructure or support for DH professional development. Owing to my library science background, I came to the Institute with a strong technological background, but the two weeks I spent in Arlington, Virginia last July definitely made me rethink my approach to digital history pedagogy.

As anyone who is familiar with technology knows, your knowledge needs constant refreshment, in order to remain relevant. There are levels of DH. Some require comfort with technology. Some require higher levels of operation, including programming skills. Research institutions like Duke, Brown, Northeastern, and Boston College have built impressive infrastructures, designed to support faculty and students in their digital scholarship. The growth of open-access tools mean that many undergraduate courses can be taught with  minimum learning curve, and boot-strapping. But it also means being conscious as to what purpose we are teaching students. For me, that means not only teaching the students theory and tools, but also teaching them how to be self-sustaining in low-budget environments.

My DH syllabus is constructed around specific areas of DH—text mining, sound, spatial histories, etc. Owning to my current institution’s need to keep courses as inviting as possible to students from outside the History major, it is pitched at a 2nd year undergraduate level. Most of my students aspire to go on to be librarians, teachers, or museum professionals, rather than academics. I have them read some theory and review a few projects for class. I open most classes with a short lecture to help them contextualize the theory, and then we have a discussion of the theory and the inner workings of the tools. In some circles, there have been debates over whether to privilege theory or tools. I see a necessity for both. You have to have a working knowledge of theory to create and evaluate digital history projects. And, you have to understand how the tools work in order to both use them to their best advantage, and to understand their limitations. That is why theory, tools, critiquing of projects, and small projects are all part of the course.

If you are new to technology, it is important to consider your local resources and the amount of time you want to put into a course. Expect most projects to take at least twice as long as you might expect them to, and be very careful to scaffold them. And, consider your desired outcomes. For instance, do you want the students just to play with the tools on their own and show you they did it? Or, do you want them to produce something more extensive? Omeka projects have become popular, in part because it’s freeware and it requires very little technological background to produce something that looks interesting and can excite administrators and marketing people. But, if you have them design exhibits, chose something with ample local resources that is either designed around a course that you teach often, or that can be used in multiple courses. That way, the energy that goes into developing your infrastructure and assignments has a longer life. For example, if you teach an American Revolution course, consider an exhibit around a specific diary or historical narrative. If you’re working with primary sources or images, just make sure that you either have permission or that it is in public domain. The Digital Public Library of America and the Library of Congress are great resources for these types of projects.

If you are more ambitious, you can consider making a walking tour, via a CurateScape site, like Digital NH. (You can find a more populated one here.) CurateScape charges to build a site and app for you, but the files are free on Github, so with a hosting service and some familiarity with server work, you can create your own. (I built Digital NH myself, using a Reclaim Hosting account.) You won’t get the app, but the website renders beautifully on smartphones. And, you can have students produce their own mini-exhibits. This semester, I am working on a plan to have my students in my public history course partner with the Manchester (NH) City Archives and UNH Archives to produce small exhibits relating to New Hampshire history. It gets them doing some traditional archival research, and some practice contributing to public history. Digital history does not have to preclude the traditional tools of the profession.

Last semester, I also had students transcribe letters from a Union soldier from New Hampshire, and encode them, using an HTML5 CSS template I wrote for them. The students had some practice with nineteenth-century paleography, and had a chance to work with web code without having to write the code from scratch. I also showed them how to encode a paragraph of their transcription in TEI, using Oxygen. Because I had them use Code Academy to teach themselves (with me as back-up) a language (HTML/CSS, PhP, or XML), most of them had had some exposure to programming at that point. But this was another way to put their new skills into practice. And, since many DHers are self-taught coders, my intent in having them use Code Academy was to show them how to teach themselves technology. Code Academy is free and designed for learners with no prior programming background. Similarly, I taught them how to get their technology questions answered with Google and Twitter.

The final outcome of the digital history course was to have students create a digital portfolio, designing their own webpage, keeping a blog, and posting links and screenshots to their website. My goal was to give students the confidence to claim and create their own professional web presence, and to have a place where they could show prospective graduate programs and employers what they had learned.

2 comments on “Reflecting on Digital History

  1. Your report, Jessica, is inspiring AND very, very helpful: many thanks!

    • Jessica Parr says:

      Thank you so much! I’m co-organizing a THATCamp, to be held in Boston in late March. Details forthcoming in the near future – we’re hoping to start accepting registrations on Feb. 1st. It’ll be on the THATCamp New England 2017 website, and there will also be information via New England Historical Association’s website. (NEHA is a sponsor.)

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